Fitness Nutrition: Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?

Hint — it really depends on your answer to these four questions.

By: Emily Freeman

Understanding how to properly fuel your workouts is key to reaching your fitness goals. However, there’s a whole lot of nutritional information out there, some of which is conflicting. If you’re feeling confused about how to eat to reach your goals, you’re not alone. What you choose to put in your mouth is important, so let’s break through the clutter and answer one of the most popular pre-workout meal and post-workout fitness nutrition questions — should you eat before or after a workout? 

Should You Eat Before a Workout?

First and foremost, it’s important to note that there’s no one right answer as everyone has unique needs and individual goals — so, consider these four empowering questions when asking yourself if you should eat before or after a workout. 

#1 What Are Your Goals?

Are you trying to lose fat? Build muscle? Gain strength? Your goals are going to vary, and so will the way you approach your pre-workout meal. 

Trying to build muscle and strength or gain weight? A pre-workout meal may be your best bet to ensure you get in enough calories throughout the day to support muscle growth and to give you the energy to push the most amount of weight during your workouts. 

But, if you are trying to lose weight and you’re working out first thing in the AM, some studies have suggested that working out first thing in the morning before breakfast may actually increase your fat burn. However, keep in mind that this approach isn’t going to work for everyone, especially if you are doing longer and more intense workouts that are going to require that pre-workout fuel boost. Always use your body as your guide on finding what works best for you.

#2 What Time of Day Do You Prefer to Workout?

If you’re an early morning exerciser, you may not need a pre-workout meal (as mentioned above). However, if you’re exercising later than three hours after your last meal, you’ll want to grab a pre-workout snack about 60-minutes before consisting of carbohydrates, some protein, and a little fat. Yum! 

Science shows that carbohydrates can help boost glycogen stores, and protein may help improve muscle performance — the takeaway? A balanced snack is important here.  

Here’s some delicious pre-workout snack inspo: 

  • One banana or apple with 1 tablespoon of natural nut butter or a small handful of almonds
  • Rice cakes with sliced turkey, honey mustard, and ¼ avocado 
  • ½ cup plain Greek, coconut, or almond yogurt with berries 
  • A protein shake with a clean and additive-free protein powder, unsweetened almond milk, ½ frozen banana, and ½ cup fruit of choice
  • All-natural protein bar 
  • ¼ cup hummus with veggies 

#3 What Are Your Energy Requirements?

Your goals, age, weight, height, and genetics determine your energy requirements, or how many calories you need to eat each day. Your diet is something unique to you. If you’re trying to budget your calories because you’re trying to lose weight, it may be easier to stay within these requirements by not eating before your morning workout and just having a little coffee and/or some BCAAs. 

If you like to eat before your workout, totally doable. It’s as simple as taking this meal into account when planning out the rest of your daily food intake. If you require a caloric surplus, eating an additional meal before your workout can help you reach your calorie goals without feeling extremely stuffed after your meals. 

#4 How Long and Intensely Will You Be Exercising?

If you plan on working out intensely and/or for longer than 60 minutes, eating before your workout is very important. Having a combination of healthy carbohydrates and protein before will allow you to push harder through an intense workout without feeling light-headed or sick. Talk about a workout buzz kill. 

It’s also going to give you the fuel to push your body, which will increase your overall calorie burn and give you the strength to lift more weight and build more muscle. Hello, booty and biceps! 

Your Pre-workout Meal Plan

Determining your nutritional needs is not straight forward — it takes some trial and error. But don’t get discouraged. Use these questions to decide if you should eat before your workout then test it out. Feeling lethargic during your workout? Switch it up and try eating something before. Getting digestive upset during your morning HIIT session? See how you feel if you eat a little less or train fasted. 

One universal nutritional requirement, no matter what, is to drink plenty of water. Drink about eight to ten ounces 10 to 15 minutes before your workout and about every 15 minutes during exercise to ensure your energy levels stay sky-high, and you don’t end up feeling light-headed or nauseous. 

Should You Eat After a Workout?

The answer is always YES. Surprised? Unlike your pre-workout meal requirements, your post-workout meal is non-negotiable. You’ve just burned a ton of calories and broke down muscle tissue. Now it’s time to replenish to help your muscles build and recover. 

Exercise can improve your mood, energy levels, and productivity. But skipping your post-workout meal can leave you feeling fatigued and foggy. It can also put you at greater risk of injury because you’re missing out on replacing essential building blocks in the muscle repair process. 

What to Consume After Your Workout? 

Water, lots of water, immediately after your workout. Then, within 60-minutes after your workout, make sure to have a meal with a combination of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and some healthy fats. Unlike your pre-workout meal, your post-workout meal should include more protein (at least 20 grams) to ensure proper muscle recovery. 

Some great post-workout meals include:

  • 4 oz chicken breast with sweet potato and broccoli
  • A big salad with lots of veggies topped with 3 oz chicken breast, shrimp, fish, tempeh, or tofu, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar mixed with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and an apple on the side
  • 1 egg and 2 egg white omelet with mushrooms, spinach, onions, and avocado 
  • Burrito bowl with ½ cup quinoa, cauliflower or brown rice, black beans, red bell pepper, chopped romaine, guacamole, and salsa 
  • Protein pancakes made with ½ cup egg whites, 1 scoop plant-based protein powder, ½ mashed banana and topped with all-natural nut butter and fruit 

Show Yourself Some Grace 

When it comes to nutrition, figuring out what works for you is a personal journey that takes time. Learning new eating habits and how to listen to your body does not happen overnight, and that’s okay. Continue to show yourself compassion and face your fitness journey with curiosity instead of judgment as you discover what works best for you.